Tuesday 5 May 2009

Where and what was the Sudetenland?

Map showing the Sudetenland regions of the Czechoslovakia in pinkThe Sudetenland was a collective name for the regions of the Czech lands that had a majority German population when Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918.

Map of the SudetenlandThe Sudetenland mostly consisted of Czech border regions, where German settlers and their descendants had lived since the 1300’s when they were invited by King Přemysl Otakar II to farm, mine and guard the wild mountainous edges of his kingdom.

The German settlers and their descendants flourished while dynasties of Bohemian kings came and went. In the 1600’s the Czech lands were absorbed into Austria and ruled by Habspurg emperors from Vienna. Under the Austrians, German was the language of government, education and culture, and Czech was gradually reduced to a spoken rural argot, in danger of dying out altogether until its revival in the 19th century.

Czechoslovakian coat of armsAt the end of World War One, when defeated Austria was carved into several countries (according to the principles of self determination) Germans and Czechs within the newly created Czechoslovakia found their roles suddenly reversed. The Germans became an ethnic minority and the Czechs were suddenly the power-wielding, law-making majority.

Many of the ethnic Germans were displeased with their new situation, and felt discriminated against. Through the 1920s and the difficult years of the Great Depression the idea of seceding from Czechoslovakia and joining neighbouring Germany and Austria became increasingly popular among Sudeten Germans and their political leaders.

Adolf Hitler in the Czech SudetenlandOnce Austria had been annexed to Germany in 1938, German leader Adolf Hitler began to enthusiastically support and encourage Sudeten German ideas of joining his Third Reich to escape perceived oppression by the ruling Czech majority. Support turned to demands; armed uprisings and invasions threatened, and in 1938 a meeting was called between Western European leaders to discuss “the Sudeten Question”.

Munich betrayal headlinesIn Munich, the leaders of England and France agreed that they would offer no military opposition to the Sudeten regions seceding and joining Germany. If Czechoslovakia wanted to resist Sudeten secession and German expansion, it would have to do so alone, despite a current military alliance with France.

In October 1938, the Sudetenland was annexed by Hitler’s Germany and the British and French leaders returned home as triumphant peacemakers. No Czechoslovak representative was invited to the meeting and not surprisingly it’s usually referred to by Czechs as the Munich Betrayal.

Hitler had promised at Munich that once the Sudeten question was solved, he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Six months later his troops occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and six months after that they marched into Poland and World War Two began.

In 1945, with the Czech lands liberated by Soviet forces from the east and Allied forces from the west, the Potsdam conference decreed that the German population of Czechoslovakia would be transferred to Germany or Austria, leaving the Czech lands to be occupied almost solely by Czechs.

Expulsion from the sudetenlandThis population transfer (or expulsion, depending on translation of the Czech word “Odsun”) remains a highly controversial subject and influences Czech-German political relations even to the present time. Its direct effect on the Sudeten regions was to leave them notably underpopulated, with many towns and villages completely deserted.

After the expulsion, the Sudeten areas were resettled by Czechoslovak citizens of other ethnicities, Czechs, Moravians, Slovaks, Gypsies (Roma), and Ruthenians (from the far eastern tip of Czechoslovakia that was ceded to the Soviet Union). Many villages and areas were never properly resettled and fell quickly into neglect, especially along the southern and western borders where the ‘Iron Curtain’ was descending. Away from prosperous tourist magnets like Český Krumlov and Karlovy Vary, attentive travellers will sense a difference between the former Sudeten regions and the rest of the country even today.

One last thing about the words Sudeten and Sudetenland, is to be careful using them, especially around anybody who might be old enough to remember the brutal Nazi occupation. In 1942, Czechoslovak president-in-exile Beneš wrote “the words Sudeten, Sudetenland and Sudete will forever in our Czech lands be connected with Nazi brutality toward we Czechs and toward democratic Germans before and after the fateful crisis of 1938”.

When in doubt, use “former” as a preface, or follow the example of Brigadier General George Taylor; signing a surrender agreement he crossed out the “Elbogen, Sudetenland” of his German counterpart, noted “does not exist” and replaced it with the town's pre-war name “Loket, Czechoslovakia” avoiding the S-word altogether.

Related posts:
Schindler’s Svitavy
All the famous Czechs were Germans
The Fateful Eights


Francie said...

A good Czech photographer, Jindrich Streit, local to the Olomouc region, lived in Sovinec which was part of the former Sudetenland. His photos from there are of families who moved into the region after the expulsion. Its worth having a look at some of his work: http://www.jindrichstreit.cz/

sansIcarus said...

Great article, Oddsocks. Any chance of a map of modern day Czech showing which areas are former Sudetenland?

Karen said...

What a terrific post this is! Youtube is so useful for allowing people to create a print and video history lesson like you did here, isn't it?

One difference I notice between Americans and Czech people is that Czechs know their history to the nth degree. Your post is incredibly helpful to those of us in the English-speaking population. It gave me a better understanding of how it all unfolded.

Berlin said...

The brutal and deadly expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland was no less a crime than those committed by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of German old men, women and children were killed in what the Allies decreed would be a humane transfer. Young women, girls and grandmothers were brutally raped and often killed. Indiscriminate murder, beatings and stealing of property were common occurences. Innocent Germans were mistreated in the same concentration camps that had only recently been liberated. The massacres at Eger and other locations were unprecedented. As the article indicates, the Germans had lived in the Sudetenland since the l300s. Still they were driven from their ancient homes while being killed, beaten and violated often by gangs of roving young Czechs. This is not a page of history which the Czechs can be proud of. They still refuse to repeal the criminal Benes dictates resulting in tense relations with present-day Germany. World War II was not a 'good war' like they would have us believe. It was a 'bad war' like all wars. The Allies committed their share of atrocities and the criminal and
bloody expulsion of the Germans from the Sudetenland was one of the worst.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Nice link, Francie.

SansIcarus, I'll see what I can do about better maps...

Karen, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm planning similar ones about key words and ideas to understand like Bohemia/Moravia/Silesia, the Restitution, Normalization and Gothic/Renaissance/Baroque. And yes, where would we be without youtube these days!!??

Berlin, Thanks for reading and your comment. I agree with almost everything that you say and will be tackling the Odsun/Expulsion directly in an upcoming post. Did you notice in the text the photograph of the memorial plaque to the German victims of the Usti Massacre in July '45? On a recent visit to that city, I was lucky enough to meet someone who remembered the massacre and was willing to tell me a little about it...

Thanks for reading, everybody!

Brett Atkinson said...

Nice work Greg - go to somewhere like Cheb and you can certainly see the contemporary ramifications for population - see you in a couple of days... Brett

Unknown said...

In this weeks Prostějovský Večerník, there is an article about a concentration camp in Prostějov. Some Germans from Prostějov, Šternberk, Šumperk, and Bruntál were sent to the camp. The camp was actually in Vrahovice, which is essentially right beside Prostějov.

I am still working through the article, but it is an interesting read.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thanks Jameson. Here's a link to the article if anyone else is interested in taking a look...